The Last Frontier
by Pat Rooney
“An orgy of graft and exploitation,” Indian Rights Association, 1924.
While this quote does not exactly sum up David Grann’s new book Killers of the Flower Moon it is not far off the mark. In this well written and documented book, Grann delves into the early sordid boom town years of Osage County. He tells the story of the Osage Indians that lived there, of their mineral wealth, of those that tried to steal it, and of those precious few that tried to stop it.
The book centers on the sudden wealth of the individual Osage tribal members made possible by the early oil boom days in Osage County. Deemed incompetent to handle such wealth, tribal members were assigned legal guardians to assist them in handling their money. Usually these guardians were prominent white businessmen. When Osage Indians started dying mysteriously and in large numbers, following the money usually led back to their so called “guardians.” Our pioneer forefathers don’t look so good in the story, as local, county and state law enforcement were often useless against these incidents. Those not in cahoots with the criminals often looked away or soon lost interest in solving these cases. Grann describes the result as a virtual reign of terror on the tribe to obtain its mineral wealth.
Eventually the FBI was called in and the cases began to move forward to a series of sensational trials which made national headlines and captivated the nation. During one such trial, a national news service sent a nation-wide bulletin titled “Old Wild West Still Lives in Land of Osage Murders.” The bulletin stated that the story, “however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier west that we thought was gone.” Adding further that “it’s an amazing story, so amazing that at first you wonder if it can happen in twentieth-century America.”
Not being initially familiar with the story, I was caught up in the boldness of the crimes and the resulting in-depth investigation by the still nascent FBI, trying to make a case against powerful local citizens. Mr. Grann skillfully weaves the tale of the lead special agent, Tom White, who struggles with scant admissible evidence. Moreover, he must deal with his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, who realizing the national stature of the investigation, is breathing down his neck to get convictions to build up the FBI’s reputation as a necessary federal law enforcement agency.
It’s a chapter in Oklahoma History and, although not a good one, it is one that we should try to learn about. Remembering our state’s early years can help us understand our state’s political legacies, such as our historic populist tendencies and our early distrust in political officials. Highly recommended.